This is a series profiling the Hurricanes’ 2021 draft class. Aleksi Heimosalmi is the third profile in this series.
Aleksi Heimosalmi was drafted 44th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2021 NHL Draft and signed his entry-level contract on Aug. 15. Heimosalmi has a number of tools that make him an atypical defenseman for a player his size, so we’ll explore that and more in this profile.
Heimosalmi’s skating stands out as soon as he steps onto the ice. He’s quick and can dart in and out of coverage with ease. Skating seems like it comes just as naturally to Heimosalmi as walking does. His mechanics are clean and there aren’t any concerns about his stride being clunky, not getting enough power in his pushes or his top speed. In fact, Heimosalmi might possess some of the best skating skills in the draft when it comes to defensemen. Take a look at this clip. It almost certainly showed up in the Czech team’s film room the next day as an example of how to not play defense. Heimosalmi accelerates and makes the Czechs look like they’re skating through cement, scoring a goal and leaving everyone in the dust in the process.
Aleksi "catch me if you can" Heimosalmi pic.twitter.com/jN3bAZT2ty— Canes Prospects (@CanesProspects) August 21, 2021
His skating looks effortless here and he’s able to beat not one, not two but three defenders and score a pretty goal in the process. Heimosalmi isn’t afraid of the player trying to knock him off of the puck along the boards either, shrugging him off and continuing to press the attack. Given where his skating is at right now, it’s clear that Heimosalmi will be able to keep up at the NHL level. I’d like to see his backwards skating improve a bit because I think he can get beat in the defensive zone, but his straight line skating and edge work need little improvement in order to be NHL ready.
In order to have a long career as a defenseman in today’s NHL, you have to be able to skate and move the puck. Heimosalmi is able to do both of those things at a near elite level. Just look at his confidence with the puck on his stick in the clip above. He turns on the jets immediately after going around the net and takes it coast to coast for the goal. Here’s another clip that shows his confidence with the puck that’ll tie into the next section as well.
Another good play from Heimosalmi. Only a secondary assist but he carries the puck out of the defensive zone and has a successful zone entry before passing. pic.twitter.com/r9gJRdckcj— Canes Prospects (@CanesProspects) August 21, 2021
Defensemen that have the confidence to carry the puck out of their own end are useful. Defensemen that can turn it into a successful zone entry that leads to a goal are a rare breed. Heimosalmi may have gotten a secondary assist on this play, but this play starts with him. He takes the puck and quickly accelerates to top speed, exiting the zone. Upon the zone entry, he makes the pass and pushes towards the net in order to get a rebound if the shot isn’t buried. A smart play that once again shows his confidence with the puck and skating ability.
Here’s another, smaller example of how Heimosalmi’s skating and puck carrying abilities make him a pain.
Heimosalmi can break ankles, too pic.twitter.com/qkeQnYxMXG— Canes Prospects (@CanesProspects) August 21, 2021
He’s oozing with confidence when he has the puck on his stick and these types of plays stand out.
Heimosalmi sees the ice at an average to above average level as a passer. He is usually able to find teammates for passes and can see things before they happen in the offensive zone. He is much smarter in the way that he uses his shot, however. Heimosalmi can find a player for a shot deflection or rebound opportunity off of one of his shots at an astounding level. In fact, there are few players his age that can use their shot in a variety of ways like Heimosalmi can. This ties into his offensive game, which I’ll elaborate on in a little while. The point is that Heimosalmi’s hockey sense can be applied in the offensive zone and he’s just starting to develop that side of his game.
Heimosalmi can read and anticipate plays at a high level defensively, however, making him atypical for a “smaller” defenseman. He can anticipate where a pass will go and move to intercept or get in the shooting lane to prevent an offensive opportunity from happening. He knows when to time these plays, too. He’ll lift a stick at the right moment to break up a pass, he’ll make a perfectly timed poke check and get in the way of any sort of offense. Heimosalmi’s hockey sense can make him a pain to play against because he knows exactly where to be.
Heimosalmi has potential as a two-way defenseman at the NHL level, and while he may need some polishing, it’s clear that he defends well for his age. His positioning in the defensive zone is sound for the most part and his skating allows for him to close gaps quickly. He can seal plays off along the boards and likes to defend with his body in addition to his stick. I’ve called Heimosalmi an atypical defenseman because you don’t see many defensemen under 6-feet tall play as well as he does in the defensive zone. Heimosalmi weighs 168 pounds according to Elite Prospects and yet he doesn’t hesitate to play physically. These reasons make him atypical. Sure, there are defensemen that do these sorts of things, but most defensemen in this particular group lean more towards the offensive side of the game. While I do think that Heimosalmi has untapped offensive potential, his defensive play is what sets him apart from the others in this group. Take a look at the following clip.
This is in a preseason game, so players are still warming up. Still, the play is pretty impressive. He skates in, pokes the puck away and hits the player to seal off the play. It’s a small example of how effective Heimosalmi can be at stopping an offensive play dead in its tracks.
Heimosalmi is still a little unpolished in the defensive end, but you can see the potential in his game. He lacks strength and he can’t knock players off of the puck as often as he wants to. This causes him to flail with his stick on occasion, which isn’t a great way to defend. Sometimes he can be guilty of standing around and missing an assignment, leading to high danger chances that goalies have trouble stopping. Still, you can help Heimosalmi improve on those things. Any muscle that he adds will be beneficial and help Heimosalmi be a more effective defender both in open ice and along the boards. Help him improve his positioning and you can turn Heimosalmi into a defensive gem that is also excellent in transition. It’s going to take time for Heimosalmi to reach his full potential, but he could easily be a top four two-way defenseman once he gets there.
I’ve touched on parts of Heimosalmi’s offensive game throughout. It isn’t as pronounced as other areas of his game are and I think there’s a lot of untapped potential there. Heimosalmi grew as an offensive threat over the course of his draft year, finally bursting onto the scene at the U18 World Championships. He was named the tournament’s best defenseman and showed a ton of offensive potential. The tools are there to allow for Heimosalmi to excel in the offensive zone. I’ve already talked about his skating and I believe that Heimosalmi can wreak havoc in transition and on a power play given how good of a skater he is. He is a confident puck carrier and a competent passer, and his wrist shot might be his most underrated asset. Heimosalmi boasts a quick and accurate wrist shot that can be utilized not only as a scoring threat but as a passing option or a way to generate deflections. Here’s an example of Heimosalmi’s offensive potential on a play finished off by Ville Koivunen.
Just a small example of what Aleksi Heimosalmi can do when he's on his game. Canes prospect Ville Koivunen puts home the rebound. pic.twitter.com/k0R3PvEzUp— Canes Prospects (@CanesProspects) August 2, 2021
Heimosalmi has more offensive potential than he lets on. Part of the reason why he hasn’t fully broken out yet may have to do with the system he was in. He was getting time on the power play but wasn’t the one running the unit. Instead, passes would be sent to him and his job would be to move the puck along immediately. He was able to get a lot of secondary assists because of this, but I didn’t see a ton of fantastic passes at the U20 level last season. I thought that Heimosalmi was much better at the U18s and had some flashes of brilliance during the World Junior Summer Showcase, showing me that he has more to give on the offensive side of the puck.
Heimosalmi has a lot of raw talent and I can confidently project him as a top-four defenseman if he reaches his potential. There’s a lot to like about how he defends, skates and sees the ice. Heimosalmi’s strong two-way play will help propel him to the NHL and his skating will set him apart from the rest. This is a player that could be a legitimate threat in transition and wreak havoc on both ends of the ice. While he does need a lot of improvement on both sides of the puck, it’s clear that the Hurricanes see the upside in this player. You can help a player improve his awareness in the defensive zone and add strength. You can help him grow as an offensive player. What you can’t teach is his confidence, hockey sense and skating, however. All three are near elite status in his age group.
Heimosalmi might need three or four years to develop before we see him on NHL ice. He’ll need to fill out and continue to work on rounding out his game before making an impact at the NHL level. The fact that the Hurricanes have signed him already is encouraging because now they can have an increased hand in Heimosalmi’s development. Judging from Assat’s preseason lines, Heimosalmi should be getting top four minutes on a regular basis in the men’s league this year. That’ll be a massive boost for his development and a good opportunity for fans to see him grow in a big way. After this season, the Hurricanes have the option of letting him continue his development in Finland for another year or two or sending him to the AHL if he’s ready.
By drafting Heimosalmi, the Hurricanes showed that they’re willing to bet on a player’s upside rather than floor. Heimosalmi has a lot of raw skill and can be polished into a top four, two-way defenseman capable of dominating play on both sides of the puck. Admittedly, I was a little lower on him in my prospect rankings than I should have been. After watching a solid seven hours of tape on Heimosalmi, I realize that he has more potential defensively than I was willing to admit at the time those rankings were released. I’m still not sure if he cracks the top 10, but 14 is a little too low for my liking. Heimosalmi will be a fun player to watch in the coming years and it’s another fantastic pick for the organization.